(The Root) —
"I know you don't believe in discussing how many sexual partners you've had with someone you are dating, but what about if you are about to get married? Is that something that should be known — or, if your partner wants to know, should you discuss it?" —S.V.
I'm not a fan of disclosing your number under any circumstances, and though it's a popular question, I can't believe that anyone over the age of 18 still asks anyone how many people he or she has slept with.
In the same way that many women assume that a man must be a "good catch" if he has a degree and earns six figures, or in the way that many men assume that a woman is "wife material" if she can throw down in the kitchen and fixes his plate, many people — more so men — also assume that a person's "number" is indicative of his or her morals, values and worth as a partner. And it's just not accurate.
The answer to "How many people have you slept with?" doesn't really give you any useful information. The answer from a 40-year-old woman could be three. That's harmless enough, but it doesn't tell you if the men were all serious relationships, if any of them were married or if all three encounters occurred in some wild ménage à trois (plus one) the week before, and one of the participants was the would-be best man at the upcoming wedding.
For a woman, there is no right answer, and any answer is likely to be used against her, which is why I suggest you don't answer. No matter how tame her past may be in comparison with that of the man asking, she's likely to be looked down upon in some way — even if she's a virgin. It's slut-shaming at its finest.
It's no secret that our culture holds men to a different and more liberal sexual standard than women, or that many men take advantage of that double standard. If a guy is answering the question, no matter how high the number, it's usually dismissed with a shrug under the guise of "Well, boys will be boys."
A few months ago, I participated in a roundtable discussion for Essence magazine's February 2012 issue with the leading relationship bloggers, including The Root contributor Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas, Anslem Samuel from Naked With Socks On, Jozen Cummings of Until I Get Married and Charli Penn-Watkins from Man Wife and Dog. Cummings actually applauded women for being more mature for not caring as much about numbers. I had to inform him, "That's not a sign of maturity. It's an understanding that if women were to start rating men the way they rated us based on how many partners they've had, there may not be very many men to date."
The guys, all in their 30s, admitted that it had been years since they had asked or been asked about their number, and a couple even confessed that sometimes, hearing that their woman was "too experienced" could be an unnecessary blow to their ego.
The consensus of the group was to advise everyone to stop asking the question, and if you have the misfortune to be on the receiving end of the query, you should lie or dodge the question by getting to the heart of what the asker really wants to know by responding to the question with a question: "What is it that you're really trying to determine?"
Usually what the inquirer is trying to gauge is if you're more sexually experienced than he is, how well (or not) you're likely to perform in bed, the likelihood of your having a sexually transmitted infection or how likely he is to run into someone you've had sex with. If you're discussing marriage, I'd guess that your fiancé probably knows whether the two of you are sexually compatible. But he may be feeling insecure and wondering how he stacks up against other men.
If this is your situation, by answering the question you will only open Pandora's clichéd box. Continue to skip the answer, and give him some ego-stroking assurance by insisting, "You're the best, baby." Whether true or not, it's the only sensible answer to give a man you're planning to marry.
I'll assume if you're at the point of discussing marriage that you've been out together multiple times and he has a decent take on how prevalent your exes and former flings are in your shared social circle. And I'd hope by this point in your relationship that you two have been tested and have continued to get tested annually. If not, do not pass go; go directly to your nearest doctor's office or clinic to get your results together.
Occasionally you may encounter a man who just insists on knowing your number. Recognize it for the mauve flag that it is. He's likely not too enlightened when it comes to what matters in relationships, and once you tire of his badgering and answer the question honestly, he'll probably demonstrate that fact to you in other archaic and sexist ways. If it gets to that point, run — don't walk — to the nearest relationship exit. Your number isn't his only problem.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She answers your dating and relationship questions on The Root each week. Feel free to ask anything at firstname.lastname@example.org.